Wednesday, May 3, 2017

A life told in book titles

We need an archeology for our own lives.
Kim Stanley Robinson, "Vinland the Dream," The Best of Kim Stanley Robinson

For many of us, photo albums serve this purpose. The photographs show the many layers of our lives, revealing who we were and who we were with at various times and places. Others may rely on a diary or perhaps just those boxes of stuff accumulating in our attics or even the clothing in the back of our closets.

For Pamela Paul, editor of The New York Times Book Review, there is just Bob, as she describes in My Life with Bob. Bob is not a man but a book. It is her acronym for what she calls her Book of Books, a notebook in which she has recorded, in very small print, the titles of every book she has read since she was 17. These book titles work for her like photo albums and attics work for other people. They can take her back instantly to other times in her life.

And so My Life with Bob is her autobiography, the story of her life told in book titles. Brave New World takes her back to high school. It was one of the novels she read for her honors thesis. She read The Grapes of Wrath as a young woman living with a family in France. The Flashman novels remind her of an old boyfriend who liked them. She didn't, and soon didn't like the boyfriend. A Wrinkle in Time takes her back to when her children were young and she read to them every night.

Yet the books she writes about are more than just signposts for her life. They become metaphors, as the themes in novels somehow become the themes for her life at the time she read them. Such is the power of literature that it not only puts us in the stories but, at the same time, puts the stories in us. Paul sees herself as Anna Karenina, trapped in a catch-22 and even, metaphorically speaking, swimming to Cambodia.

I, too, have been keeping a "book of books" for many years, although it is actually several books. I just can't write as small as Pamela Paul apparently does. As Bob does for her, these books give me an archeology of my life.

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